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Insights from a Virtual AFP Cross-Canada Tour during COVID-19

When news broke in early March that Canada was commencing a lock down due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, I immediately reached out to my local AFP chapter president to offer my insights and experience to fellow AFP Nova Scotia members. As a consultant and the former Vice President of an Artificial Intelligence-based software company, I have extensive experience working and managing from home, using video to host important meetings and building relationships without direct face-to-face contact. I thought I could help.

We had over 70 Atlantic Canadian fundraisers join us for the first session on March 24. The response was overwhelmingly positive, so we shared the idea with other chapters across Canada. As of the end of April, over a period of five weeks, I have now spoken with over 500 fundraising professionals across 12 AFP chapters coast to coast. I learned a lot along the way. 

The sessions continued to grow and pivot as I collected feedback, examples, stories and data. Below are the key insights that I felt were important to share as we continue to process the new realities of a rapidly changing fundraising environment.

  1. Resist the urge to stay silently respectful. The initial urge for many professionals I spoke with was the desire to remain silently respectful as they didn’t feel they could ask for money during the crisis. In fact, 12% of people surveyed said they would refrain from fundraising entirely and wait for this to blow over. In his book Good to Great1, business guru Jim Collins outlined the flywheel effect about building momentum over time and it should provide all the motivation you need to understand why stopping isn’t an option. As my CEO, Guy Mallabone often says, “the time to ask for money is when the need is greatest” and the need is certainly greatest right now, across the entire sector. Once the fundraisers initial fears about asking were overcome, it appeared it was organizational leadership and Board members who were still in need of the most convincing.  All early reports indicate Canadians are stepping up in a big way to support the charities they love. If you still need help convincing your team or leadership to fundraise, hopefully these materials will help:
  • Taking the Pulse of Donors Initial Responses to COVID-19, March 20202
  • Amid all the hardship, Canadians are giving more to charity, April 7, 20203

  1. Scrape the barnacles. I also discovered over 28% of responders said their biggest obstacle to fundraising today was lack of a plan. They simply didn’t have a plan for what was going on and they felt their existing plans were no longer applicable to the situation. I found this interesting: the core principles and methods of fundraising and relationship building haven’t changed, only the channels have changed. ‘Pivoting’ is the word that was used across the country. The most effective teams were not scrapping their plans: they were pivoting, adjusting and amending them to fit the situation. Now is the time to focus on your most profitable and highest margin programs, activities and donors. Many teams were using this opportunity to sunset or as we joked about with one chapter, ‘to scrape the barnacles’ from your fund development machine which are not your most profitable.  I also observed many of the charities who rapidly pivoted their fundraising programs are now making direct asks for operating or emergency funding and are being exceptionally honest and open about their situation. I expect to see this trend continue. 
  2. Adopting video. I was curious to learn how video would be adopted by major gift programs and discovered that 39% of responders said they were either already using or are prepared to use video to continue major gift visits during the pandemic, while 24% were not planning to use video at all. Given the way business is being conducted today, my guess is we will see a rise in the adoption of video calls based on the success of these early adopters. I predict the rise of digital gift officers who can quickly and easily use technology and social media to build relationships with a new generation of major gift donors. I am certainly not saying face-to-face will be replaced, but there will be a segment of donors who will find it more comfortable to engage using the business tools they are most comfortable with. The key is to be donor-centric, right?

I am exceptionally proud of my fellow fundraising professionals. Many of us in the sector have been forced to innovate virtually overnight. Change is never easy, and the adoption of new tools, technologies and methods can be exhausting. Fundraisers are as resilient as the sector itself (read Richard Walker’s white paper4 to learn more about that) and fear is rapidly being replaced with hope.

We will get through this and we will be better suited to engage the donors of tomorrow because of it. Being forced to innovate will help spur new ideas and ways of engaging that will be donor centred and technology driven.

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1.The Flywheel Effect from Good to Great, Jim Collins, 2001, https://www.jimcollins.com/concepts/the-flywheel.html

2.Taking the Pulse of Donors Initial Responses to COVID-19, Blakely and the Aber Group, March 2020

https://mcusercontent.com/db32968f682a1664bbfe10fa9/files/073acd13-1ec2-4b36-ba07-2574d447e7ae/Canadian_Infographics.pdf?utm_source=COVID-19+Donor+Research+Sign+up&utm_campaign=0e68471587-AUTOMATION_Welcome_Message_1&utm_medium=email&utm_term=0_93760528b9-0e68471587-201056812&mc_cid=0e68471587&mc_eid=aa0a70a35c

3. Amid all the hardship, Canadians are giving more to charity, Rob Carrick, The Globe and Mail, April 7, 2020

https://www.theglobeandmail.com/investing/personal-finance/household-finances/article-amid-all-the-hardship-canadians-are-giving-more-to-charity/?/

4 Will Your Nonprofit Survive 2020? Richard Walker, Global Philanthropic Canada, April 2020. https://www.globalphilanthropic.ca/blog/2020/04/will-your-nonprofit-survive-2020/